by Ken Liu
I was seven when Anna first spoke to me.
"What's that?" a voice asked. It sounded like a girl.
I was alone in my room, building a model rocket. I looked around.
I checked the radio on the shelf and the CD player on my desk. Both were off. I pulled open the
curtains to look for Dad, who liked playing pranks. The yard was empty in the summer twilight.
The voice didn't come from anywhere. She was talking from inside my head.
"Who are you?"
"Call me Anna. What's that?"
I went back to my desk. "It's a rocket," I said. I had just finished painting the body red but
hadn't attached the white fins yet.
"You're going to fly a bigger one someday?"
When adults asked you a question like that, it wasn't a real question. They laughed no matter
what you said. But Anna didn't sound like an adult.
"Yes," I said.
I drove Jenny out to the park by the beach. It was closed after sundown, but you could always lift
the barricade yourself. The parking lot was empty.
When both of you had parents who stayed home in the evenings, you had to be creative about
Afterwards we lay together on the picnic blanket, looking up at the stars slowly spinning
overhead. The air was warm and the bug spray did its job of keeping the mosquitoes away.
"That was pretty good," Anna said. "You did much better than with that sophomore."
"What?" a startled Jenny asked, leaning up on her side to look at me.
I had long since learned to be careful about revealing Anna to people. My parents had sent me to
doctors who asked me strange questions and gave me pills until I learned to lie and told them
that I was no longer hearing voices.
But in the afterglow, I was feeling extra trusting of Jenny. "Do you ever hear voices?" I asked.
"What if she says yes?" Anna asked. "Wouldn't it be fun if she has a boy in her head? We can go
on double dates and have a foursome."
I resisted the urge to hit myself on the back of the head -- I would have looked crazy and it
wouldn't have worked anyway.
"What do you mean?" Jenny asked, her tone leery.
"Sometimes I hear this girl." I decided that Anna had annoyed me enough tonight that I wasn't
going to hide her anymore.
Jenny smiled. "Tell me about her." Her tone told me that she thought this was some weird
attempt at sexy banter on my part.
"She's quirky and very sure of her opinions," I said. "She never shuts up."
"Ouch," Anna said. "That hurt."
"Oh," I added, "She's always going on about how I have to be an astronaut."
"When I found you, you were already working on a rocket," Anna said. "Don't blame me for
your high-pressure dreams."
"That is . . . quite a portrayal of your dream girl." Jenny laughed. Then her face turned quizzical.
"I don't get it. You want me to tell you to be an astronaut?"
"No, I'm telling you that she lives in my head."
"Yes. I wish she would go away and leave me alone."
For once, Anna said nothing.
Jenny gazed intently at my face. "You're serious?"
"I don't think you want her to go away."
I was surprised that she was so calm. Maybe she didn't believe me. "Why not?"
"If she talks to you in your head, you must have spent more time with her than anyone else and
she must know everything about you. If she hasn't left you yet, you must be best friends."
I paused. Sometimes we're blind to the most obvious things.
"No one else can cheer me up like she can," I said. "And she sings beautifully. This doesn't
freak you out?"
"When I was little, I heard a voice in my head, too," Jenny said. "I got embarrassed when I was
older and told him to leave. I miss him."
"Oh." I didn't know what else to say.
"We had fun just now. But you know she'll always be there for you."
I knew she was right.
"For the record," Anna said, "I only came back because I don't like to let you have the last
And the three of us sat under the stars and talked and laughed. I wanted the night to last forever,
knowing it wouldn't.
I've been chasing this bit of trash all day.
It isn't too big, just a couple cubic meters. But it has a weird orbit and it takes me a while to shift
into it. The computer guesses it's a piece of an old Russian satellite.
I accelerate, the great blue-and-white-and-tan Earth spinning slowly under me. The target grows
bigger in the lens.
It's silvery and very bright, like a squashed football.
Pincers reach out, capture it, and bring it inside.
"You made it," she says.
I haven't heard Anna's voice in a very long time.
"We can't live in your gravity," she says. "So we stay up here and beam our voices down into
the heads of humans that interest us."
"Oh." I don't know what else to say.
"When you got older, it was too hard to reach you. It was like your skull got too thick. How is
Jenny, by the way?"
"We got married," I say. "Then we fell out of love. We both knew you'd come back."
"I'm here for you."
The top of the silvery football spins slowly. I wait to see what will emerge.